Always Being Reformed: Sermon for October 29, 2017

This is the final sermon in a four week series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. To start at the beginning, please click here.

Over the past month we have been on a journey through the landscape of the Protestant Reformation in preparation for this Tuesday, All Hallow’s Eve. That day marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkFor two weeks we talked about Luther, first as a young man, and then as a man who changed the course of Christianity and really the entire world. Then last week we talked about John Calvin, another key reformer. And I told you that this week I was going to talk a little about what all this meant to our own church, and our own faith tradition.

And in order to do that, I first want to turn to the Scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew. This is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches about the heart of our faith.

Jesus talks here about “salt and light”. These were two very valuable things in Jesus day. Salt was useful for many things, not just cooking, and it was not inexpensive. And light, in these pre-electric days, was coveted too. And Jesus talked about how we are called to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. We are called to be valuable and useful.

You’ve heard a lot about being the light in this church. You know my affection for the song, “This Little Light of Mine”. I’ve told you before that even though we might think of it as a kids’ song, it’s really a profound testament to what it means to lead a Christian life. And it’s this passage in particular that spells out why:

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In other words, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.” It was this very passage that spoke to some of the people responsible for our church being here.

Last week we left off with Calvin and how he started what we now called the Reformed tradition. And like the tradition that descended more closely from Luther, the Reformed tradition expanded too. Soon Reformed churches had spread to the Netherlands, some parts of Germany, and Scotland. Those Scottish Reformed folks would later call themselves “Presbyterians”, and would bring the Presbyterian Church to this country, particularly in the colonies south of New England.

But it was what was happening in England that most shaped us. England was in the midst of its own Protestant Reformation. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Pope’s authority in the 1530’s and the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, had become the official church. That may make it sound like England was a good place for Protestants, but that was only true if you were Henry’s kind of Protestant.

That was a problem for a group of Christians who had been influenced by Calvin’s ideas. They looked at the Anglican Church and they felt like Henry hadn’t gone far enough. They tried to change the church, but they met resistance and were persecuted. Some wanted to “purify” the church. They would later be called Puritans. Others believed the church was beyond repair. They were called Separatists, and they ended up having to flee from England to the Netherlands where they were building a church in exile.

MayflowerHarborYou might know the story that’s coming now. In the Netherlands some of Separatists decided to come to the New World, partially in order to find a place they could worship freely. Before their ship left their pastor, a man named John Robinson, preached a sermon to them. And in it he talked about Luther and Calvin and what we had learned about church from the Reformation.

And then he said these words, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from (God’s) word.” More light. The kind of light we cannot hide under a basket. These were the words that rang in the Pilgrims’ ears as they set off on a journey that would end up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Likewise, some Puritans who had stayed in England set off for this land too. Settling in Boston and on the north shore, they heard similar words from John Winthrop right before they landed. He said that the “eyes of the world” were upon them and, using Jesus words, that they would build here, “a city on the hill” that would be an example for the world. In many ways Boston became that city to them. It was meant to be a shining example to the world of the faith they embraced.

So, this sounds great, right? Forward-thinking, positive. Lots of light and understanding? Well, yes and no. Certainly it was more progressive than many places but. as was true in every other place where one faith reigned supreme, Massachusetts was a hard place for those who disagreed with what the people in charge said. And one of the people who kept running afoul of the more well-known ministers in the Boston area was a man named John Wheelwright.

You know Wheelwright because he was the founder of our church. His portrait is downstairs in the vestry. And like Calvin and Luther, Wheelwright really believed in the grace of God. He believed in it so much that the folks in Massachusetts thought it was a little too much. And when he called some of the other Puritan ministers out, they were done with him. They banished him to the frontiers of the most terrible place they could think of then: New Hampshire.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocSo that’s how our church got here. It was 1638. Only 18 years after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth. Only 74 years since John Calvin had died. Only 121 years after Luther posted his big ideas to the door of a church. In other words, only a couple of generations into the Reformation. This church is 379 years old. That means that we’ve been around for a lot of the 500 years of the Reformation.

And that also means that we know a lot about what it means to reform. I’m not going to go deeper into the church history here. I preached a sermon on that last April for our birthday, and there are a lot of resources available if you want to read more. But I will say that we have never been a church that was not closely tied to the Reformation and to reformation itself. It’s in our very DNA.

There’s a phrase that Reformed churches use quite a bit: “The church Reformed, and always being reformed, by the Word of God.” More simply, “Reformed and always reforming.” The church is always changing. This isn’t change for change sake, but rather purposeful change, change that comes because we are following God into what is next.

To use a UCC catchphrase, “God is still speaking…” That means that we are called to listen, to act, and something to change.

That change is sometimes not easy. John Wheelwright knew that. So did our ancestors in this congregation who decided to support American independence, to work for the abolition of slavery, and to become Open and Affirming. The surest way to make others unhappy with you is to seek to change what needs to be changed. But they did it anyway, because, like Luther, they believed that they could “do no other”.

And so that’s the challenge that we now take up. If the church is Reformed and always being reformed, where is God calling us now? What are we being asked to reform, or to re-form? How will we grow and change for the next 500 years?

The Refomation began 500 years ago, but it has never really ended. The spirit of reformation, the Holy Spirit that guided Luther and Calvin, also guided the Pilgrims and John Wheelwright. And it has guided this church for generations too. And now it guides you and me as well.

And so long as we are following that Holy Spirit into the future God is already preparing for us, we will be on the right path. God is reforming God’s church, and that means God is again and again re-forming us for the work that is left to do.

IMG_6541What remains on this anniversary is the challenge that Jesus issued so many years ago on that hillside. We may not be a city on a hill, but we are a church on the hill, and we have a lot of light in this place. We must now take the light that shines brightly around us, and share it with the world.

It’s time to move aside the bushel basket, or anything else that would dim our light, and instead share the light with the world. No longer can we keep hidden what is meant to be shared. Because the reformation continues, and we are called to be the light. It’s time to take our places in the reformation, and it’s time to let it shine.

The People of the City on a Hill: Sermon for October 9, 2016

Note: this is the second in a three part sermon series on “Prayerful Citizenship”. To read the first sermon, please click here: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/02/when-all-is-not-well-where-you-live-sermon-for-october-2-2016/

In 1630, John Winthrop stood aboard the ship Arbella and addressed the people of the ships that would become known as the Winthrop Fleet. They were Puritans, arriving ten years after the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Before they went ashore, Winthrop preached a sermon to them about what they were about to do. He told them that the new community they would form would be a like a City on a Hill, one that would be looked at by the whole world. He saidpablo that because of that they needed to be careful that the whole experiment not end in what he called a “shipwreck”.

Today we would say “train wreck”, but they didn’t have trains back then, but you get the idea. In other words, “don’t mess this up because everyone is looking at us”.

No pressure.

Nearly 400 years later Americans talk about how we are called to be a shining city on the hill, or an example of what a good society can look like. And 400 years is a long time for an idea to live. But it’s not even a quarter as long as the idea of the “City on a Hill” has been around. For that you have to go all the way back to Jesus Christ himself.

And so, as we begin this second week in our sermon series on “Faithful Citizenship”, that’s where we are heading. Jesus was giving what became known as his Sermon on the Mount, and he had just finished teaching the Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are you who are persecuted, and so on.

He immediately tells the people, “you are the salt of the earth”. Salt was rare and highly valued in those days, so this was high praise. Then he tells them, “you are the light of the world and a city built on a hill cannot be hidden”. Just like that old song we sing sometimes, “this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”, he tells them that they cannot but a basket over their light and hide it. They have to let their light shine, not so that they would be praised, but so God will be praised.

This is the passage that John Winthrop was talking about when he preached that sermon. They were about to go ashore, not so far from here, and build a city that the whole world would be watching. And so, using Jesus words, he told them “don’t hide your light”; make sure that this place we are going to build together will shine so brightly that people can’t help but see it.

All these centuries later, in an era of global 24 hour news and the internet, the country that grew from that City on a Hill cannot help but be noticed. We live in one of only a handful of countries that is consistently on the global radar, perhaps more than any other. We are watched, and analyzed, and both loved and hated. And at our best, we are a country that shines our light for good. We are a place of hope and freedom. One that still draws immigrants to our shores because of those promises.

But that doesn’t mean that our light is always shining. This country has had times when that light has been obscured by the baskets that we ourselves have put over it. Baskets like hatred, inequality, violence, systemic poverty, and more. In our worst moments, we are a shining example of what not to do. That’s what we talked about last week, when we admitted that sometimes not all is well where we live. We have to tell the truth about that before anything can change.

The good news, though, is that by telling that truth, we have a chance to kick over the baskets that hide the light, to change the story, and to make this City on the Hill shine as it never has before.

But that starts with us. Because that City on the Hill must be filled with People on the Hill. And the city will only be as good as the people who build it. And so, like Jesus said, we need to become like the salt of the earth. And for those of us who are Christians, that means we need to draw upon our best values, the ones given to us by our faith, and use those things to inform the way we will be citizens in our country.

John Winthrop himself had an idea of where to look for those values. In his sermon that day he quoted an Old Testament prophet, Micah, whose words we read before the sermon. Speaking to a city in distress, one that had lost its way and was trying to get back on track, Micah asked rhetorically, “What does God require of you?” And the answer wasn’t burnt offerings or sacrifices or anything like that. Instead if was just these three things: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

csp_zhgwiaepitiDo justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. It almost sounds too simple. But it is harder than it looks.

Because what would it look like if we all demanded those three things of ourselves in our daily lives? How would we do justice? Would we seek to be more fair to the people we deal with in our businesses? Would we look at people who weren’t treated as equals and advocate for them? Would we speak up when we hear someone use words that demean others?

And what about kindness? This same word is sometimes also translated as “mercy”, so would we be kind and merciful? Would we hold the door open? Would we let that person merge in traffic? Or, more seriously, would we stop withholding words that would heal? Would we look at those who suffer, and choose mercy over words of blame?

And what about humility? By this I mean real humility, which is understanding that none of us is any more or less beloved by God’s than others. If we walked through the world with that kind of humility, how would it change us? Would we be less judgmental of differences? Would we be more apt to value character over celebrity? Would we be more aware about what was good for all, and not just good for us?

Micah gave us a prescription for what ails us. He told us clearly how to get better. But as much as those three things sound as simple as an episode of Mr. Rogers, that is hard medicine. Justice, kindness, and humility are wonderful things…and they all take work. Every day we have to recommit to them. And every day we have to use them to kick aside the baskets that cover our light.

But more than that, if we want to be a City on the Hill, it is not enough that we ourselves commit to these things. We must also demand them from our leaders. “Christian values” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in election years. It often comes to mean a very specific set of beliefs and priorities, one with which only some Christians agree. But what would our national political stage look like if we took this bedrock of our faith, these real Christian values, and demanded them of our leaders? What would happen if we refused anything less than real justice, real kindness, and real humility?

That may sound naive, especially in a year like this, but if enough of us demanded it, things would start to change. And so would our leaders.

I’ll close with this. I’ve talked a lot about John Winthrop in this sermon. He would go on to be the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and a very powerful man. He would also become one who didn’t always live up to Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humility. Because of that, real people’s lives were affected for the worse.

220px-Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSoc

Rev. John Wheelwright, who was not beloved by John Winthrop

One of those people was a Rev. John Wheelwright. You may have heard of him, because in 1638 he founded our church and the town of Exeter. He had crossed Governor Winthrop, and he was banished from Massachusetts into what was then the frontier of New Hampshire. (His sister in law, Ann Hutchinson, was banished to what would become Rhode Island, by the way.) We’re here today, in a real way, because John Winthrop got it wrong.

A lot of our leaders get it wrong sometimes. And in the face of that, it is easy to feel powerless. I’m sure that John Wheelwright did. But we are not powerless. We have the ability to continue to build up our City on the Hill, and to transform it for good. We have the ability to become the servant leaders who make sure that light shines, even when others would obscure it. To be a Christian and a citizen is to never be without hope, and to never be without responsibility.

When I think of the man who founded this church, and this town, I remember that. 378 years later, I hope when people look at us as a church and as a town they see light. And I hope that we, as Christians and as citizens, will only do the things that would help that light to shine, here in our city, and far beyond. Amen?